Ulster’s hopes of play-offs left grounded by soaring Ospreys
ULSTER’S play-off hopes are now all but over as they failed to get going against an impressive Ospreys side at the Liberty Stadium. Les Kiss’s team didn’t deserve to take anything from this encounter as they were outscored three tries to one in Swansea. Ulster’s only effort came in the final minute through replacement Jacob Stockdale, but by then the game was lost with the Ospreys crossing through Tom Habberfield, Tyler Ardron and Brendon Leonard.
Dan Biggar kicked three conversions and a penalty to leave the Welsh side in pole position to reach the semi-finals.
Ulster were met with a resolute Ospreys defence as they looked for a way back into the game in the second period, and they also lost Ruan Pienaar and Stuart Olding to back and ankle injuries respectively. Failure to take their chances at crucial moments cost them dear and their hopes of silverware are almost certainly over for the season.
“It looks like that is it for us,” admitted Ulster skipper Andrew Trimble, summing up his team’s downbeat mood. In truth though, they only have themselves to blame and it will now take a miracle for them to join Leinster and Munster in the championship shake-up.
It had been a nightmare start for the visitors, Kiss’s men falling behind inside eight minutes. It was a simple score too, Ashley Beck getting his hands free and passing to Habberfield, who crossed in the corner. Biggar added the touchline conversion.
Without the injured British & Irish Lion Jared Payne, who had failed to recover from an ankle knock, Ulster looked stuck in the changing rooms and although Paddy Jackson got his team on the board with a penalty, the Ospreys were the dominant force.
In their Lions halfback pairing of Rhys Webb and Biggar, the Welsh side had the game’s most lively operators and the out-half responded to Jackson’s effort with one of his own to make it 10-3.
Ulster weren’t helped by losing scrum-half Pienaar to injury in the 23rd minute, the South African replaced by Paul Marshall. It remains likely that Pienaar, who is leaving at the end of the season, may well have played his last game for Ulster and with him absent, they fell further behind before the break.
Jackson’s clearance kick couldn’t find touch and was run back with intent by man-of-the-match Dan Evans. Brushing through some poor Ulster tackling, the full-back linked with Habberfield, whose pass found Ardron for a simple finish. It was a brilliant team effort, but from an Ulster point of view one that could easily have been prevented. Biggar converted.
With a 17-3 half-time deficit to overcome, Ulster needed a quick response. It didn’t come. The Ospreys were the ones using the ball the better, and the visitors’ plight was summed up when Stuart McCloskey’s clean break ended with a knock-on. The centre was replaced immediately after by Olding, who lasted less than a minute as he was taken from the field on a stretcher with what Kiss said was a season-ending ankle problem.
Those setbacks only served to ruin any plans Ulster had of a comeback, and although they had much more possession in the second period, they couldn’t break through a black wall of defence. Charles Piutau looked lively, but the former All Black knocked on when close to the line and replacement Stockdale inexplicably hacked the ball dead after beating Sam Davies in a footrace to the line.
That looked like summing up their day and although the result was now done and dusted, there was still time for late drama. Replacements Leonard and Stockdale crossed within a minute of each other to bring an end to the scoring and although Jackson drop-kicked the conversion, Ulster were left thinking what might have been.
Scorers — Ospreys: Habberfield, Ardron, Leonard try each; Biggar pen, 3 cons; Ulster: Stockdale try, Jackson con, pen. Ospreys: Evans; Giles, Fonotia, Beck (Matavesi 65), Habberfield (Davies 74); Biggar, Webb (capt) (Leonard 76); Smith (James 65), Baldwin, Mujati (Jones 54); Davies (Ashley 62), Ardron; Underhill (Baker 67), Tipuric (Baker 37-40), King.
Ulster: Gilroy; Trimble (capt), L Marshall, McCloskey (Olding 53 (Stockdale 55)), Piutau; Jackson, Pienaar (P Marshall 23); Warwick (Black 55), Best (Herring 65), Herbst (Ah You 44); Treadwell, O’Connor (Van der Merwe 77); Henderson, Reidy, Diack (Timoney 62).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)
Ulster captain Andrew Trimble admitted that his side’s season is as good as over after their emphatic defeat by Ospreys